|Prime Minister of Nepal Jhala Nath Khanal (left) observes demining at the Phulchowki minefield. The mines were the last of 12,070 planted by the Nepal Army during a decade-long armed conflict to be destroyed.|
By Rupa Joshi
KATHMANDU, Nepal, 22 June 2011 – As monsoon clouds gathered over Phulchowki hill, in the south-western rim of Kathmandu valley, two loud explosions filled the air. Guests cheered as smoke billowed from the top of the 2,700 metre hill. Nepal had become free of minefields.
It is only the second country in Asia, after China, to be declared minefield-free. There are still another 26 landmine-contaminated countries in the continent.
Cleaning up after conflict
The Prime Minister, Jhala Nath Khanal, and the Chief of Army Staff, General Chhatra Man Singh Gurung, each pressed a switch to detonate the remaining landmines. Afterwards the Nepal Army was given a ‘Handover Certificate’ by the UN Mine Action Team (UNMAT) confirming that the land has been cleared according to international standards.
"This is an important achievement under the provisions of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement,” Mr. Khanal said. “I thank all concerned who were involved, especially the United Nations and its related agencies."
A total of 12,070 landmines were planted by the Nepal Army in 53 locations throughout the country during the decade-long armed conflict, to protect military installations and infrastructure such as communications and hydropower stations. The minefield in Phulchowki was laid around one of the critical telecommunication masts that guided aircraft navigation.
As part of the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Accord, the Government and the Maoists had committed to identify and clear the landmines, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and other explosive remnants of war.
|© UNICEF Nepal/2007/Laurenge|
|School children study an awareness leaflet published by UNICEF as part of mine risk education in the most affected districts of Nepal.|
Battling hostile terrain and inclement weather, the men and women in blue scoured the minefields inch by inch, down on their knees, measuring, prodding, digging, snipping, and using metal detectors to clear every single every mine.
Set up in April 2007 with UNICEF and UNMAS as members, UNMAT supported the Nepal Army in the humanitarian de-mining process. In the last four years, the Nepal Army has been able to clear more than 200,000 square metres of minefields and release over 5,300,000 square metres of safe land back to communities.
Injury prevention and care
UNICEF's focus has been on establishing an ongoing national victim information system and implementing mine risk education. Post-conflict, UNICEF provided the Nepal Army with 14,000 hazard signs and trained 25,000 security personnel from the police and army.
"We have also worked consistently with communities, especially children, and the Ministry of Education to raise awareness of the risks of explosive devices, and provided training to mine risk education focal points from 70 districts,” explained UNICEF Acting Representative in Nepal Will Parks. “We reached over one million school children from the most affected areas with mine risk education lessons. Now this task will be carried forward by the Ministry of peace and Reconstruction.”
Although Nepal is ‘minefield free’, incidents involving IED explosions continue to occur, in part because numerous armed groups are still using IEDs as their main weapon. Since UNICEF began monitoring injuries in 2006, 474 casualties from victim-activated explosions have been reported, predominantly by improvised explosive devices. More than half of the casualties were children.
The latest victim, five days before the minefield-free event, was Jeevan BK, 12, a fourth-grader from the far western hills of Nepal who, besides suffering from serious shrapnel injuries, lost all fingers of his right hand when an abandoned pipe bomb he had picked up exploded.
|© UNICEF Nepal/2011/Joshi|
|Discarded mine hazard signs in Phulchowki, Nepal. After a long UNICEF-supported campaign the country is now free of landmine fields.|
Despite this, the number of casualties in 'explosive' incidents has declined in recent years, which UN Resident Coordinator Robert Piper attributes to education. "It is arguably progress in the mine risk education that has led to the sharp reduction in the number of casualties over recent years, with a drop of 40 per cent from 2009 to 2010," he said.
Almost all survivors have received adequate and timely medical care and benefited from rehabilitation services when needed. This support and other victim assistance services have been provided by the Government, International Committee of the Red Cross, Handicap International, UNICEF, Nepal Campaign to Ban Landmines and others.
The final hurdle
UN officials at the minefield-free event urged the government to become the 157th country to sign to the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, by which it would also agree to destroy any such stockpiled weapons.
"Nepal may be minefield free today, but it still cannot be declared a country free of landmines," said Richard Derieux, UNMAT Senior Technical Advisor. "The Nepal Army still has anti-personnel landmines in its stock. It is only when these are also disposed that Nepal can truly become a mine-free country."
As the guests and dignitaries started to make their way down the Phulchowki hill, the team of blue-suited de-miners working at the site cheered and congratulated each other on a job completed. Next to where they stood smiling was a pile of mine warning signs. They are finally no longer needed.